In 2016, after moving to a rural stretch of Dutchess County, two hours north of New York City, the artist Cy Gavin experienced a prick of déjà vu. It took him a while to realize that he’d seen the landscape surrounding his two-story barn—a valley between the Berkshires and the Hudson River he describes as “glacial, ancient and sort of bizarre”—depicted by the Hudson River School, a movement of landscape painters in the mid-19th century who romanticized the American frontier. He came to regard their output as a form of propaganda. “I think [those paintings] fostered a sense of entitlement to that land, which is completely unsubstantiated by history,” he says. “Living up there, I felt an overwhelming desire to undo that.”
The result is a series of paintings showing at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise (GBE), in Harlem, through April 14th. The nocturnal landscapes upend the sentimental idyll of both the Hudson River School and Bermuda, where Gavin’s father is from. Most prominent is Bish Bash Falls, a massive 12-by-28-foot painting of the waterfall that feeds into the Hudson river, depicted under January’s full lunar eclipse / super blood wolf moon. As punishment for committing adultery, a Mohican woman was said to have been killed there, “but that story might not be real,” says Gavin. “It's a totally contestable mythology perpetuated by white settlers at a time when people were making narratives around their ideas of ‘the noble savage.’” Elsewhere, in Untitled (Gibbet Island), Gavin eerily depicts the shoreline where Bermudian slaves were hanged. In lieu of figuration, the paintings are fleshy and eerie proxies for human bodies.
The 33-year old has established himself as a kind of maverick in the art world, even as he inches towards the center of it. As an MFA student at Columbia, Gavin opened a secret short-lived gallery in the locker rooms of an abandoned Harlem building—located a few blocks from GBE. As a kid, he harnessed an appreciation for art at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art, sneaking in through an underground entrance. “I still do that. I did that a month ago,” he says. “I just think it's overpriced and alienating.” The day before we spoke, the museum purchased one of Gavin’s paintings for its collection.